by Robert Ready.
On the last night of her New York life, Mary Rice came to a corner of the avenue and the street and took in the big vegetable and fruit stand.
During the summer months, the stands stayed open all night. Their three or four spindle-strung light bulbs hung out for a breeze to sway in. To Mary Rice, long-retired archeologist, such stands were yet another interesting phenomenon. Tended in twelve-hour shifts by members of immigrant families, they were beacon points of home country news—from Ecuador, Cuba, Paraguay, Belize, Panama, and various Middle East nations. When customers were scarce, the night shift plugged in to up-volume chat from the streets and houses of Centro Habana, or the Chacarita in Asunción, or the zocalos in Oaxaca city, wherever the America below the United States lived to serve—fruit to drugs, cantaloupes to cannabis, tourism to trade talks—the fleet cravings of the north. To list now all such places she had been in, Mary Rice would have to sit for a while with a pen and paper. How that used not to be the case for her, the decades and decades of total recall, a memory as big as the Amazon.
She tended to stay inside her rent-stabilized one-bedroom place during the day, digging, she told people still of a mind to ask, at her memoir of a woman’s life in Middle Eastern archeology. Come dusk, she became a careful nightcrawler in the city.
This last night, she was at a stand worked by the stooped Cuban immigrant his customers called Fidel, because he told them to. He tended his terraced display of fruit and vegetables for sale at about half what the indoor markets got, a fact that caused some friction with the grocery store owner half a block up. As a result, more than a few times, some of Fidel’s produce, meant to climb diagonally up careful steps on wheeled metal counters—like an altar to some midnight sun—absorbed a swipe or a shove to the sidewalk when Fidel or the family member with him wasn’t looking. Under one nervous bulb hung Fidel’s street vendor’s framed registration with the city, whoever they were. Fidel himself was half-juiced and a quarter-slumped against the wall at the near end of Yemen World Coffee House, a finger pushing his earplug into the counter-static lining the report from home. Mary Rice heard Spanish words crackling through, for police, missing children, huge Caribbean birds keening, or was that women? She quickly picked up that Fidel scowled at her attention to his private world, so Mary walked, as well as she could, to get away from Fidel’s stand, to the far corner entrance to the YWCH.
Mary Rice pulled the heavy door open, went inside, concentrated. She got to a shaky metal table at eleven in the evening in the all-day, all-night Yemeni deli. She took a take-out menu off the short stack of them on the table and started line-reading it backwards, for mistakes and typos. Doing so was a mental exercise. She looked around the place, orienting herself at the sight of Mr. Hassad behind the register wetting his forefinger between arighting and bundling packs of singles, fives, tens, twenties. She could not see those particular denominations as such, but she could tell the different thicknesses of the four piles. Mr. Hassad took no fifties from anyone.
There was nothing Yemeni or particularly Middle Eastern about the YWHC fare. Hassad’s extended male family worked the deli, and the deli worked them, day and night. As usual, the television on its shelf up next to the rolls of paper towels repeated the day’s personalities news a tad loud. The store had peak eating periods eight times a day. Cops, private- school kids, Russian construction workers, lawyers and lyric coloraturas, business people not quite yet masters of the universe but dressed expectantly for it, world-wide tourists in shorts and backpacks, disengaged married-couple sippers and readers of papers and screens fingering cell phones, all spoke in versions of English and in six to ten different languages that ground the TV newstalk back into its incomprehensible background swell.
Mary concentrated on her mind. More and more, that was her work in life. Good still at Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday crosswords in the Times, she pushed back on memory issues by counting back from a hundred in sevens, then nines, then both. Or she did words in threes. Bovine, watercress, magenta. Forwards once, backwards once. Then a few minutes later, forwards. She couldn’t tell if she was cheating on memory just by memorizing. Change was coming. Change utterly. The mind could lose language, a little at a time, a whole syntactic practice, all at once, sometimes to be retrieved, sometimes not. In her career in archeology and quasi-State, she’d spent years competent in different languages. It was not true in her case that learning more increased her capacity in her own native language, English. Her English of late could get stuck, as if it couldn’t learn any new English. Reading the menu backwards for mistakes fought back.
Mr. Hassad was now shoving only dollar stacks into a blue canvas cash bag that said, Navy.
“The menu,” she told herself aloud. She read it aloud, in shorted whispers that bothered nobody right now.
Beverages included café auliat. There was a chicken parmesan Panini but an eggplant parmesana. #7 Panini was Meat Less. The Toss Salads included 1. Choose your own Base, 2. Pick your item, and 3. Pick Your Dressings, which included Creamy French. Four tuna sandwiches: tuna salad, lowfat tuna salad, hearty tuna salad, and smoked tuna salad. You could have Assorted of Croissant Danish. The End-Less Breakfast Special was 2 eggs, 2 eggs and Bacon, 2 Eggs and Sausage, 2 eggs and nothing, all 24 hours. The front fold of the paper take-out menu said, prices are subjected to Change Without Notice. Mary Rice stopped herself from going through it again, lest she double the score against the previous menu writer. The previ . . .
“Hey,” Mr. Hassad said. “No sleeping.” No slipping, the same thing. She perked up, embarrassed, glad to see him by her table.
A little lie. “I wasn’t really asleep.”
He wasn’t bad looking, as her mother used to say in checking out once and once again educated young men she brought around to keep her mother and father thinking she was interested in marrying for a traditional life as well as having a full career. Mr. Hassad was not much taller than she, not much broader than she, but he had the tensile forearms and determined grey eyes that could ward off trouble. There could have been a time, in a different world altogether. When she and Mr. Hassad. But the thought would have been offensive to him. Old men got to be randy, lust returning to them like a prodigal son. Old women ran out of most of what they had, so they seemed only dirty. So thought some.
Mr. Hassad put down her late night food on a red tray. Lentil soup just hot enough, half a whole wheat bagel a schmear buttered. She was grateful for the simple pleasures the man accorded her seeping retirement budget. Give me what you have, he’d say. Give me the rest next time. He was a confident religious man, who gave fair measure and didn’t ask to be thanked for it. He didn’t know that his menu had mistakes in English. He’d told Mary many times that she and he had their own charms and purposes in the greatest city in the world in the greatest country in the world, where up on the flat screen TV a blonde petite morning-show star and her tall African American co-star, guests on a late-night show, were learning to tango under the supervision of a heroically ballroom-dressed Argentine dance teacher who claimed collateral blood with Eva Perón.
Mr. Hassad sat with Mary Rice for a bit. She liked to listen to his answers about his family, and he liked to say them. There were eight keeping the business humming three shifts a day. In Yemen, his country, he had been a graduate-school educated systems engineer who had good work for a long while. His four sons would have been civil servants and teachers, but that was over there. And the three other younger teenage boys originally from extended Hassad families over there who also worked the deli here would have trained to be a cleric, a physician and a textile exporter. But all those lines laid out for them got tangled up in the civil war, strangled dead, the murdering Saudis.
Mr. Hassad was very worried about the youngest of these three, the boy named Esau Kassem, from the northern Saada province. Mr. Hassad, the boy’s de facto foster father, did not understand Esau’s rages, silences, attempts to be black here in New York. Saada City itself had been taken over by Houthi militias that had kicked the government out and brought on the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that included U.S. 500-pound munitions dropped from U.S. planes flown by U.S.-trained pilots.
UNESCO aid workers had pulled Esau out of his uncle’s arms after Uncle Adam kept returning senselessly from the rubble of his bombed-out apartment complex to the rubble of his bombed-out barber shop. Uncle Adam’s diamond-princess daughter Nahile wet her bed, menstruated only once, went mute, ate only wrapped candies, curled her fingers into her ears because no one would let her attack her eyes when the bombing came close or sewage in the street a block away simply exploded and the smell of it lodged high in her nose. Esau, ceaselessly in motion but saying little, had come on a plane full of scared and stricken teenage refugees and been given apple juice and mini-burgers as soon as he got ushered off the plane. In all this global Hassad family story, Mary Rice felt most for Nahile, thought she could have, if Mary had a chance, helped get the girl calm and strong as a woman again. It was a recurring thought that she kept to herself.
But Mr. Hassad, whose whole family had resided in the southern city of Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, for hundreds of years, fretted about Esau the most. Esau’s own father, Malik, Uncle Adam’s brother, was but a dim memory to the boy. Mali Ahmad Abu Ghanim, a prisoner at Guantanamo in Cuba since 2004, was in political limbo, released from terrorism charges by a U.S. Tribunal in 2013 but deemed problematic to repatriate to Yemen because of his presumed connections to ISIS-infiltrated Houthi elements in Saada City.
Esau longed for his father, grieved his dead mother and four siblings burned to death in a Saudi air strike in 2014. He believed that Guantanamo Bay detention camp was run by Cubans because Cuba was part of the United States. Mary Rice learned all this in parts and pieces from Mr. Hassad, who said she was the most sympathetic American to Yemeni trouble he knew. It relieved him, he told her, of some of his burden to tell her these unfortunate facts about his life and his extended family.
“Mrs. Weiss.” It was the closest Mr. Hassad could get to the sharp r in Rice. But he heard the rhyme. “Mrs. Weiss, the day is nice.”
“Doctor Has Sad,” she said. He got that, sort of. Once a week, when she nightcrawled it on a Tuesday or a Wednesday to this neighborhood, they joked around with rhymes. Mary Rice thought they helped her pin things on words. Though the women in his family barely appeared in the store, save for major Muslim holidays, Mr. Hassad’s respect for Mary Rice’s long educated life was real. She still missed her years working, she had to call it teaching, in seven countries on four continents, an independent archeologist journalist woman of letters, an occasional public intellectual with an admirably lucid prose style. In bits and pieces, she’d told him and she taught him a fun word for it all. Spook, State-speak for spy. The closest she ever got to being a real spook in Yemen was when she used to make certain kinds of phone calls to the American Embassy in Cairo. She would report occasional contacts of note she’d learned some American academics made with Yemeni nationals capable of destabilizing university politics.
All her archeological life, she’d taken notes. She took as many notes as Shakespeare used words. Tens of thousands of notes, thousands of them alone at the site in Yemen, her first site after her doctoral work at Yale. At that site, she was honored and shy at having been picked by Evelyn Threnod, the Australian spook who took her, because of, he said, her precision in the dirt. It was unforgettably risible, his staring from behind at her long taut khaki skirt while she was on all fours in the shallow ditch, scraping metal fragments. She knew it, felt it even more than the desert sun, so stood up to face it, lanky, tall, enough in all ways to fulfill the need of sexual company of a famous archeologist, with whom she could talk sand layers and Aramaic Judea Capta coins.
On September 18, 1969, Dr. Threnod had put out his welcoming hand to her down in the ditch, left it expectant in the air. She accepted it, climbed up and out briskly, was glad to see he was still tall. “Mary,” she said.
“Yes. Dr. Rice. Your reputation precedes you already. Your vigor, if I may say, adds to it.”
“You always wear a name tag, Dr. Threnod?”
He stopped a hand move as if to take off his name. “Forgot,” he said. “Must have had it on all night on the plane from Tulsa to here. It’s good to have palpable evidence of one’s name, do you agree?”
“Digitization,” she had said. “The seventy-five volumes of thirty years here.” She went for it. “Will you take me to the canteen and buy me a drink and tell me just everything about digitization in Tulsa.”
“Would your mentor, Professor Clifford, approve? We were good friends, you know. Had our time in government consulting together. I imagine you miss him greatly, as I do.”
It took nine years to show how wrong the first one could be for an archeologist virgin. Threnod was steady at it, brutal, faithful in building and hurting. He wasn’t looking for Judea Capta coins for nothing. He unearthed the fair Utah maiden in her, got himself inside her like a tomb robber. Coin of his realm, so he spent her, made her his Mary Rice of Yemen. The day nine years later they parted, he gave her a long lucky rabbit’s foot that had a little button that thrust out a long and sturdy nail file, which she always kept in her purse, to help keep her, he said, precise fingernails clean from the dirt. Now decades of digs, grants and teaching jobs later, it was a history of spooks in and out of Third World excavations that retired and ailing Mary Rice of New York couldn’t even begin to tell Mr. Hassad, preoccupied as he was with Esau ripe for trouble in Yemeni America.
“Esau,” she said, to dislodge his brooding apartness. She waited by taking two spoonfuls of the soup. She could help him with this trouble, maybe avert it altogether. She had old connections, old power to act, if only she wasn’t losing it too fast. “They came back?” she asked, “The ones trying to get Esau in with them?”
“The men came back. Yes. Later yesterday, just before we do the six shift change. They parked their strange truck outside on the avenue. They called Esau out, and he went, though I forbade it. They showed him pictures of the destruction of the temple of the Moon in Marib and the Saudi air strikes on the Great Dam above Marib.”
“The temple of the Moon in Sheba,” she said.
“Yes, of course you know it. In ancient Yemen. The seat of Sheba’s matriarchy. To them it’s the abomination of the forces of blasphemy. Jalilliya.”
“The caliphate would destroy it,” she said. In her time, she’d scraped in the Great Dam dirt, in her long khaki skirt, up close and under a sun helmet that shaded her amazing power to see precisely. The diminishment of all that. But she cut the seared disappointment off.
“And take a lot of heads. So, Esau came back in, as if he’d been given a new book of life to read. They drove in their truck, away, before I could stop him to ask who they were.” He opened his hands as if to place on the table an emptiness he could no longer hold. The table didn’t tremble.
She could think of nothing to say to him about Esau. Instead, she asked him, “What’s it like? Being here.” More and more, the non-sequiturs filled in her attention span.
“Kicked out of there?” Mr. Hassad said, his two fists opening to knit their fingers into one another. Times like this, she was only a young seventy again, when long training for such points in life reported back in on demand.
“That, yes,” she said. “You pick up on Americans fast. At least New Yorkers. Isn’t that right? You pick up on us fast?”
Mr. Hassad submitted to her compliment. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you. Been that way for all my time.” He was singing, very quietly, Creedence. He amazed her.
“Anyway,” he said. “I ever tell you before I was Doctor Hassad, I was Airborne?”
He had. Or she thought he had. It wasn’t like him to repeat old things.
“You flew out of airplanes, yes. You told me once. I think. Very impressive.”
“Under this mild-mannered exterior.”
“Yes. A killer. Trained by your Special Forces. Civilized, smart, turn on a quarter.”
“A dime,” she said. That was good, getting the phrase.
“On a dime, even cheaper. Into savages,” he said. His face shook, transformed, into murder.
“The look on your face. That look,” she said. “They teach you that as well? It’s making this food in front of me a thing of disgust. There. The look’s gone. Amazing. On a dime.”
“Anyway,” he said. From his shirt pocket, he pulled out an unwrapped deck of playing cards, the like of which she hadn’t seen in years. He undid the two elastics, cut the cards in half, shuffled them like a practiced dealer, evened them out, laid them down mutely by her cup. Then he tapped the table hard enough to rock it a little on the uneven tile floor, told her to complain to management about that, gave that almost grin, got up to get behind the second register as the first midnighters stepped in off the avenue for something to eat to take the place of sleep. She picked up the cards in disbelief, made sure they were what she remembered.
“Esau,” Mr. Hassad came back to say. Mary Rice heard that look in his voice. “I took them from him. I made him tell me. Some sort of half-assed militant Jersey jihad they’re trying to teach him.”
Mary Rice flipped over the faces of Ace Kerry and King Obama. The other sides said Death to Satan in red and Question and Quest in blue with dates included.
“This child may ruin himself. Ruin us all here.”
“What’s Question and Quest?”
“Esau calls it the Young Muslim Weekend of Question and Quest at the Big Tent Mosque in the field on the connector road to Atlantic City. Esau says I chew and swallow humiliation. Esau says I go home to sleep only until first light. Then I rush to here, he says, to brew the first ten-gallons of Arabica for these people who make possible the America that suffocates faith and life in the coming Muslim world.”
“He’s learning a language,” she said. A phrase abandoned her. She got the Secretary and President mixed up, which was absurd because one of them was black. She felt a drowning pity for Mr. Hassad’s small odds for preventing ruin from stalking this child, as if he were a terrorist truant officer on the deadly night shift. Quick study was the phrase. She had a fright: what would the next phrase be to go? If she could remember the cards.
“He will not go to this Question and Quest. I am not his father. But he will not go. Not to that.”
Dr. Hassad stood up and walked away, leaving the deck. She picked it up, ran two fingers around the edges, stroked the memory back.
She’d had a deck like this. Another spook-like sister archeologist, Iraqi Dr. Sarhan al-Abadi, whose English was so perfect she sounded as if she had a new kind of American accent, gave it to her on the mad bus run out of Baghdad two days before the American invasion. Then they were a psy-ops item, 52 cards, the full deck of infamy. The Air Force dropped them, sometimes packaged, sometimes just letting them fly by the thousands down to the farmlands and city streets. Pick one up if you have the stomach for it, little Wanted mugs of torturers, human traffickers, evil bastard politicians to shoot down on sight.
It was uncanny, how much the radical Islamists called by many names had a worldwide strategy for one enemy of the faith to the next. They copied, mimicked, stole, plagiarized the very best and worst of their worldwide enemies. Mary Rice checked that the now busier store covered her. She splayed out the cards in a big fan. 52 playing cards of 52 top U.S. generals and commandants, scientists, policy makers, financial captains, talk-radio hosts, a few actors and American Muslim accommodationists of note in the President’s whole military, economic, and cultural apparatus. Each one had a portrait—26 men, 26 women—from a two of hearts to the king of spades, each one bordered like classic blue and red pattern cards, each one of the numbered cards with a standard American 2 to 10 and a standard Arabic 2 to 10, plus the Jacks, Queens, Kings and Aces. On the back of each in Stan Lee comic-book print: CLEAR THE DECK. QUESTION AND QUEST. Mary unfanned the deck, then flipped over a three of hearts Joint Chiefs of Staff Head and a queen of diamonds Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency, a line of blood dots printed around the base of her neck.
It made its own sense. Hillary and Sheba, kill the one, raze the site of the other. Decapitate antiquity, terrorize modernity with the most sophisticated information assault available and the most ragged reproduction of American warfare conceivable. The U.S. was a house of cards, replace them, disrupt them, bring them all fall down, wherever, whenever from Yemen’s antiquities in Marib to Yemeni delis in the City of New York.
Esau was messing with these guys. Esau could die. Zakia had died, she heard Zakia had died violently in jihad. Nahile’s whole biology bombed into remission. Oh, no, here it was again, the archeologist’s own worst nightmare. Her life was a dig, but the layers no longer lay in their proper order, sequence, times.
In a town square north of Barata in Mozambique, internationally acclaimed archeologist Dr. Mary Rice had given her beautiful heart-smiling, wonderfully strong, 23-year-old intern Zakia a set of just such cards, picturing 52 Middle East and East African Al Qaeda and other chiefs wanted dead or alive. Maybe a year later, he disappeared, only to show up again accusing her of failing him miserably. He came back to Mozambique with weapons training and a shariah God in place of Catholic Jesus, just before Mary moved to a new academic station near the secured Baghdad. The caliphate would give Zakia what she’d promised. Except it would be an America destroyed. He would get into a wrecked empire, not the fortress America Mary Rice represented.
“It is my dream,” Zakia once told her early on in hope and later repeated in bitter self-mockery. “To come to America, become an American, work for God in a new America, be as good to America as America is to me. Please, you will assist me in my dream.”
The dream of America for an intern whose father had been a key aide to Samora Michel’s revolution in the 70’s that kicked out the colonial power was a non-starter. Mary shuffled the cards in the Yemeni World Coffee House and saw the young hopeful Zakia one Christmas season when she was in Mozambique teaching archeology on Fulbright and State Department assignment. Zakia shinnied up an eighty-foot coconut tree on his mother’s little chicken farm by the Indian Ocean in 105-degrees to retrieve perfectly cool juice for Mary and a man named Mark or Hart, her Pan-African field work coordinator, who slept uneasily when he slept with her. Under the shade of a huge Savannah tree, the three of them sat on the ground and ate impiri shiri, the rare beach-plant cleaned, pounded and boiled in coconut milk for 72 hours maybe with some shrimps and tomatoes, only at holy Christmas and New Year’s, along with many other small good things like coriander garlic goat. This festive fare was for two different eating parties, Zakia and his international guests at the wood table, Zakia’s bent-over mother and her eighty-year-old constantly humming elder sister on woven mats on the ground. Mary the perpetual American tried to coax the women to the spaces at the table, until Zakia and Mark or Hart her State Connecticut lover hinted it was his mother’s way with all whites, not just Zakia’s grand guests.
Mary tightened all the cards’ edges very neatly at Mr. Hassad’s far table in the deeply settled New York night. All of what she did she saw reflected darkly on the inside glass of the plate window by her seat, but also brightly in the mirrored glass food cases seven feet to the other side of her. She felt herself a thing caught in between the two images of Mary Rice. She couldn’t be sure what the inner and outer reality of the two were, which was she inside, outside. If either one of them moved, she would be dead.
Mary pulled herself out from in between them by focusing on Hassad’s brother Naguib give current meaning to bi-tasking. A scar circling his neck above his white serving shirt darkened a little more than the phone necklace curling into the earbuds. As Naguib packed an everything bagel stuffed with veggie-lite cream cheese into a No. 2 brown bag for a bobbing rapper in wife-beater T-shirt and huge three-quarter shorts plugged into his own universe, he maintained an undervoice in Arabic with family in Aden. Some were outside of Aden, some in the hills, some in carts on dusty children-strewn alleys, others in English classes policed by armed guards. Naguib kept tabs on them all, wrote little post-its with names and money numbers.
It struck Mary that it went on all night long as well, the Yemeni deli listening to Aden motor-bike near-miss fury, high muezzin calls that prayer is better than sleep, the self-chokings back of virgin daughters slapped hard by their determined mothers. Mary envisioned , because she had seen it all up close and unchanging, the old men with half-legs belted into wheelchairs locked alongside huge barrels of spices. Naguib’s war back home, Naguib’s healthy tuna salad here in his Windexed glass case. Mary heard the story from Mr. Hassad that no one actually saw Naguib take time to pull out the earplugs to Yemen, not even to eat, though Hassad worried about his brother’s growing gut and his wheezing.
In came Hassad’s two middle sons to say good night to their father before going upstairs next door to bed. The one called Mikey had thick glasses and a thicker slouch. Esau, the marked one, made every moment a passable rap phrase and gesture. He wanted to be black, in that safe New York space for mid-teen, dark-skinned Arab boys. He moved his upper body to the beat of crackling misogyny by the singer in his ears. His own voice hit the rhymes, rhymes, that secret language beyond and under Mary Rice and Mr. Hassad, based on “sis,”—crisis, discus, Isis, ice is, slices—the last with a down thrust of his skinny right arm as if he had a sword through a neck.
Esau started showing the cards to Mikey. Mary was up, finger-fishing for dollar bills in her purse, touching the greyed rabbit’s foot that Dr. Threnod had given her with great sentiment the last time she saw him. She felt a slight vestige or remembered something like one of those years with the man who started her on her road to right here. She weaved, tiredly, around two scratchy legged tables to get to the boys, the purse yawning open and the best bunny friend dropped noiselessly out. She stopped, couldn’t see to find it, and Esau noticed her.
She couldn’t see which cards, maybe five or six of them. It didn’t matter. A half dozen American politicians from the president down to the mayor. King, Queen, Jack, Ace, Ten of Hearts, all targets of the revelation that will find its enemies in any global corner, including this infidel coffee shop. Esau moved to a corner table, slapped the cards face down one at a time like a blackjack death dealer he’s seen in a Utube midnight iPhone somewhere other than his foster-father’s apartment.
Mary got beside him. “Cards kill,” she said. She needed Mr. Hassad right now, but he wasn’t in sight. She put a dollar bill on top of each of them, George Washington face up and totally covering each wanted man or woman. Muttering spit-filled phrases about dried-up old bitch bags, Esau separated the cards from the money, put the cards in his pants, palmed the foolish little rabbit’s foot off the floor, took the money to the trash bin and pitched it, then slunk behind the counter and down the basement steps.
Mary Rice took a dizzy long route back to her table, sat down, and nodded out for some deep seconds. She woke up to this nightmare guy in black standing hip-close to her table. She cleared her throat. He swiveled around, looked over the top of her head into the street window. He was older, thinner, grayer than she.
She knew she knew him and that she could place him. He was in either an outfit or a uniform, black shirt with upturned cuffs, slim black jeans rolled up one turn over two-inch heel ankle black boots. All this about him seemed normal in this neighborhood of the weird at night. What got Mary Rice’s real attention was the guy’s alternate face. It looked like a wan face long ripped off a classical Roman temple statue and smuggled down a millennium by chain of death messengers. She could place him if only she could concentrate. She would go to hell trying.
Mary Rice stood up at her table, straight, familiar again with the living shade of the man so very close to her, as if her living spirit were to be bound with him in a vertical grave. Clarity radiated from his cursing eyes, gunmetal lips, paralytic right arm held as if atop a cane.
“Ma Salaam aliekem,” she said. “Iblīs. Old friend.” He curled away, as if from a drawn weapon, in a way that dizzied her again.
Esau came up from the basement stairs behind the deli counter. He walked around it, into the space of nervous tables, no sound of footsteps as he moved. Iblīs had turned down all such sounds. Tingling all up her right arm prevented her from holding out a hand either to her nemesis friend or to halt Esau. Esau floated flat on the floor toward the messenger, who handed him a little girl’s pink and orange knapsack. The boy opened his mouth, said something Mary Rice could not pick up. He handed Iblīs the cards as if in payment. Esau did not seem to push open the door before he went out onto the sidewalk and went right with a purpose, to get rid of the knapsack. No, Mary Rice got it, Esau intended to punish the Cuban vegetable man Fidel for his country’s prison that held his innocent father in inhumane captivity.
Mary Rice felt that her mouth was wide open. She watched Mr. Hassad, grown several inches all up and around his body, emerge out of nowhere in his store, his exquisite Japanese chef’s knife in one hand, a six-foot electric cord swinging in the other. It was his all-purpose knife. Mr. Hassad never let acidic residue from lemons or tomatoes stay on the blade. It was no contest. Mary heard but did not see Iblīs’ gullet pop and both hamstrings uncouple. The tingling in her right arm was a steady current now that picked her up like wind. She got out behind Mr. Hassad onto the avenue, but the flash threw her on the sidewalk.
Voice and hearing came back. Smell came back, black powder and chlorate. “Step the temple climb,” she said, then cried high in misery because it was backwards. She got up, climbed the temple steps one merciless one at a time, up and over to the awful site of all the vegetables in the world. No longer lechee nuts red like persimmon, no hearts of romaine, hearts of celery, not beautiful and generous ideas any more. I give you my heart of romaine, my heart of celery. Peaches, plums, avocadoes, berries blue, red, ink, and black, all gone. Bananas and tomatoes and papayas and lone carrots and tangelos and broccoli and crabapples and other three-syllable produce of creation, from sprouts and sprigs to bunches and ears. Now splattered all, scattered, bleeding like persons, dying like animals, dripping like drainpipes, rolling like marbles and gaping like fish and hemorrhaging every which way other than in the display of still lives they’d been set to mimic by the fruit and vegetable man Fidel from Havana.
“Sawyer?” she asked but couldn’t put the question mark in her voice. It was gone. Mary Rice concentrated everything in organizing this foster father’s eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth.
“Your sonnest young.” Wrong, backwards, wrong. Like her head, down.
Mr. Hassad’s great hands held her head up. “Esau’s. Over there. In the back.” He was breaking, but she heard his words coming in a sequence. “Of a police car. They said. He ran.” Mr. Hassad fought for control. “Right into the empty back seat. He’s locked all the doors, and they are furious they left the keys in the ignition. They say he won’t come out. They think he may have a weapon, some kind of blade. I have to go tell them not to kill Esau. Are. You. Right?”
“Yes,” Mary Rice said to Mr. Hassad. “Got to tell them. Go. Yes.”
Alone, numbers came to her. She just didn’t try to say them. She saw them, huge on the side of a white sanitation truck stopped behind the cars in the mayhem on the avenue. 93, she saw, 86, 79. She saw them all the way down, 30, 23, 16, clear, fiery, disappearing. Subtract, subtract, only subtract, until it was gone all, down to what up again could never add.